"An Introduction" to "Beyond Words: A Wordless Comic Anthology." Sunburn No. 11 (Summer, 1999): 2-3.


By David A. Beronä

My earliest memory with a silent strip is as a boy languishing on our front porch during one of those typical muggy Midwest summer afternoons. I was dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt with a few stains on the front from a melting Fudgesicle I held in my left hand. My right hand was free to turn the pages of my favorite comic--MAD Magazine.

Without fail, when I picked up the current copy of MAD Magazine at the corner store, I flipped through the magazine until I found Antonio Prohias’ wordless feature, "Spy vs Spy." After reading this silent feature, I inspected the margins on every page looking for those one shot wordless gutter strips that were as much fun as the paneled features. In fact I used to cut out these mute strips--sometimes as small as a fingernail--and placed them in a used cigar box. On rainy summer days when I was stuck inside the house I would arrange some of the strangest narratives on our kitchen table using those wordless strips.

In addition to MAD, one of my favorite cartoon strips was Carl Anderson’s creation, "Henry". What drew me to this baldheaded character with a fat stomach --it appeared he also ate his fill of Fudgesicles-- was the fact that he was silent. I felt a certain affinity to Henry and was amazed how easily he solved his problems in his ingenious manner.

The best resource for wordless strips and books for me growing up was our county library’s book mobile that stopped two days a week in our town during the summer months. It was inside that bookmobile-- reaching oven temperatures hot enough to roast the most serendipitous boys in town--that I was fortunate enough to discover Otto Soglow’s "The Little King." This strip was entirely silent and I was immediately captured by the fact that the strips were put into a book that was shelved in the adult section of the bookmobile.

For a comic fan like myself, I slid easily into illustrated books. I soon discovered celebrated book illustrators like Lynd Ward who also published six adult novels told entirely in wood engravings without words. Ward referred to these woodcut novels as "pictorial narratives." They included his first and most popular novel called Gods’ Man.

As I grew older, I began to search for more woodcut novels and discovered that Ward had followed the work of the Belgian Frans Masereel who published his novels in woodcuts without words and was the recognized creator of the woodcut novel. Masereel published many wordless novels up to this death in 1972. When I first picked up a copy of Passionate Journey (Lear edition, 1948), the enticement that I had with Ward turned to amazement with Masereel, especially considering the graphic nature of a few of the pages. When the Dover edition of Passionate Journey came out in 1971, two pictures from the original edition published by Kurt Wolff in 1920 under the title Mein Studenbuch were included that had been deleted from the Lear edition. They depicted the hero urinating from the top of a building on pedestrians below on the street and a scene of fornication in which both the hero and the woman show an obvious sense of pleasure and delight.

These woodcut novels by Masereel and the German Clement Moreau, who published a number of woodcut novels in the 1920’s, were not the light and entertaining narratives from the comic strips and comics. They were adult in nature and addressed the social ills and concerns of their times in graphic black and white detail.

There were other wordless books that were published in the early years of the American Depression since the novelty of Ward’s Gods’ Man had captivated the reading public. Otto Nückel’s distressing work called Destiny (originally published in Germany under the title Das Schicksal) was engraved in lead, giving it the look of a woodcut novel. This mammoth novel of over 187 engravings is a dark and psychological narrative of a prostitute. Besides Nückel’s work and another woodcut novel by Lynd Ward called Madman’s Drum, there were wordless novels on the lives of acrobats called Alay-Oop by William Gropper, a burlesque-like narrative by Milt Gross called He Done Her Wrong: the Great American Novel and Not a Word in it—No Music Too, and The Life of Christ in Woodcuts by James Reid which were all published in 1930.

Wordless books surfaced throughout the next two decades and include a surrealistic novel in collage called Une Semaine De Bonté by Max Ernst; Childhood: a cycle of woodcuts which is a childhood memoir by Helena Dittrichova Bochorakova; My War by Istvan Szegedi Szuts which chronicles the horrors of war through the eyes of a Hungarian soldier; Eve by MyronWaldman which is a light look at the life of an overweight secretary who looks for her one true love; and White Collar: a Novel in Linocuts by Giacomo Patri’s which portrays the injustices of workers during the Depression.

In the fifties the Canadian wood engraver, Laurence Hyde published Southern Cross: a Novel of the South Seas Told in Wood Engravings and told in dramatic narrative the horrid effects of United States atomic bomb testing in the Bikini Atoll. In a highly erotic work called Aphrodite's Cup, another Canadian, Georges Kuthan portrayed sexual acts depicted in ancient Greek style. Perhaps two of the more disturbing and provocative books were those by the American Si Lewen. Lewin’s first book called Parade: A Story in 55 Drawings was about the never-ending slaughter of young boys who grow up and are killed in war. In a letter to Si Lewen, Albert Einstein found his book "very impressive…Our time needs you and your work!" Lewin, who was inspired by the woodcut novels of Masereel, later published another effective work in black and white called A Journey that depicts the horrors of genocide.

Artists’ books picked up on the genre of wordless stories during the eighties, usually in linocuts or woodcuts. Among the better works are the work of Jules Remedios Faye, Babbette Katz, Christopher Stern, Lydia Jenkins Musco and Ken Currie. In addition to these artists’ books, the self-published wordless novels by John Kolyer exhibited a continuing interest in the unusual and the imaginative.

During the resurgence of comics and the graphic novel--a phrase coined by Will Eisner describing his first book length comic called A Contract With God and other stories--silent comics and wordless graphic novels began to surface. David Holzman’s Wild Heart was published in 1989 in Art Spiegelman’s RAW Open Wounds From the Cutting Edge of Commix. Jim Woodring’s Frank stories stretched the traditional roles of animals in comics. Four Walls Eight Windows published the black and white graphic novel, Mea Culpa in 1990 by Peter Kalberkamp. Eric Drooker was printing his own wordless comics at this time. Two of those, "Home" and "L" became the first two chapters of a wordless novel, Flood! A Novel in Pictures which was also published by Four Walls Eight Windows and won and American Book Award in1994. Kitchen Sink Press brought out Erez Yakin’s The Silent City in 1995. Peter Kuper, noted for currently drawing the wordless "Spy vs. Spy" feature for Mad Magazine, also had his wordless three issue comic series called The System published at this time.

As my interest grew, thanks to comic stores like The Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts and book dealers like Silent Story Books I was introduced to the rich world of Japanese and European wordless comics.

Japanese artists like Matsumoto Taiyou gave me an introduction to Japanese culture while Paradox Press came out with the English editions of the highly successful dinosaur GON by Masashi Tanaka

Through the publisher L’Association, I discovered the work of Martin Tom Dieck, Fabio, Killoffer, Tanguerelle, Lewis Trondheim and Anna Sommer’s extraordinary comic Remue-Menage. Others of interest are Vincent Fortemps’ Cimes, the detailed scratchboard mysteries of Thomas Ott and one of my most prize wordless novels, Space Dog by Hendrik Dorgathen.

Dorgathen’s work not only uses cultural icons and stereotypes but also extends the creative use of word balloons with a rich sequence of interrelated pictures, icons, symbols, characters, and trademarks instead of text. The use of these wordless balloons not only strengthens the narrative but also expands the dimension of the characters and entertains readers. Dorgathen’s choice of material inside his wordless balloons substantiates the extensive development of our unconscious pictorial vocabulary.

Today, I find myself drawn to words like "silent" or "mute" or "wordless" in The Comics Journal and in comic book discussion groups where I have found some good wordless comics by artists like Brian Ralph and his Fireball series and Matthew Brinkman. I regularly toss a few dollars in an envelope to an artist who I imagine has his or her own metaphorical cigar box of silent strips inside their heads that they assemble on paper in pen and ink, scratch board or by any other means they use to tell their story. When I receive their wordless work, I sit on my own front porch with a cup of coffee in my hand instead of a Fudgesicle and discover a new and exciting world in pictures--feeling that same sense of adventure that I had as a boy.

Beyond the obvious advantage of rising above any language barrier, these silent strips have created an iconic language that is shared by all readers. The earlier wordless novels of this century blazed the spirit in today’s wordless comics that have gained popularity. Without the restriction of language and level of literacy, pictorial communication offers the broadest audience to readers who are looking beyond words.

David A. Beronä (david.berona@unh.edu)has written articles for various publications on the history of the wordless novel and is currently writing a book on Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels.

Return to homepage